In the Toy Story movie franchise, the character Buzz Lightyear often voices the phrase “To infinity … and beyond!” One could argue that this Disney creation is as much a vehicle to market action figures as it is storytelling. Either way, the characters are stand-ins for easily recognizable archetypes, which when deployed against children’s unformed minds prove to be pretty effective brainwashing. Buzz Lightyear’s story isn’t the main focus of the Toy Story franchise, though he has full treatments elsewhere. He’s clearly a militaristic, play-by-the-rules (until they become inconvenient) type cut from the explorer/conqueror cloth that has been a human preoccupation and folly from Alexander the Great to the Spanish conquistadors to Capt. James T. Kirk of the Star Trek franchise. They all seek to expand their dominion into unknown but not necessarily unoccupied territory — a continental or interstellar land grab, if you will. For those of us in the early 21st century, an age of fully enveloping media, the fictional characters probably have as much influence as real, historical figures, even if the former’s impact is reduced to catchphrases that work like political soundbites or talking points, gaining power through heavy repetition. A character cannot be iconic without such shorthand as “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Make it so,” “Today is a good day to die,” “I’ll be back,” “Use the Force, Luke,” etc. Buzz Lightyear’s rhetoric is spatial, but humanity is also heavily interested in different aspects of time or the conflation of the two: space-time.

To say that time telescopes in human conception is both obvious and strangely hidden from view. We operate continuously according to different time horizons, from the immediate to the near-term to the long-term, and how we strategize changes completely to accommodate each. Whereas we occupy what some call an eternal present, like all other creatures in fact, where immediate sensation is ever at the forefront of cognition, we may be the only species able to project ourselves backwards and forwards in time beyond a few moments to contemplate history and the future. This isn’t to say we alone among species possess memory; that’s clearly not true. But our symbolic and conceptual thinking is unique, and it gives rise to varied and sophisticated ways of relating to space-time.

Continuing from my previous post, a review of the film Melancholia, I thought it interesting to observe that as the end drew near, the characters’ concerns telescoped down to here and now, this breath and that sensation. All else passed into irrelevance. This harrowing prospect is different from the end-of-life farewells many people (but not nearly all) communicate on their deathbeds, secure in the knowledge that their progeny will live on to give added duration to their memory and legacy — at least until those progeny, too, die and living memory fades into nothingness. Those of us with aged parent and grandparents often see that as their time dwindles, the best way to project forward in time is through storytelling — a way of passing their memories onto others — and to a lesser degree, perhaps, designating who gets their inheritable material goods and wealth.

End-of-the-world nihilism differs from indifference to human values and social hierarchy seen when human actors are removed from social contexts, having traveled into the wilderness or across the mostly featureless expanse of the oceans. In science fiction, when one probes too far away from home planets or solar systems that represent civilized life, meaning and restraint often fade away. The usual social constructs, achieved through consensus, lose their ability to compel, and a state of unprincipled lawlessness and/or anarchy may ensue, as when followers and underlings mutiny or otherwise refuse to take orders from leaders. This was explored in a recent film called Meek’s Cutoff, where three westbound homesteading families (mid-19th century) become lost in the high Oregon desert near the Cascade Range and cannot locate water. Curious shifts in moral authority occur as their circumstances deteriorate, as time telescopes down to here and now.

As global civilization begins its own deterioration, few among us yet are willing to admit publicly that time grows short — certainly not our leaders, whose primary concerns are even shorter: getting elected or reelected. Average folks who do acknowledge the awful truth often leap ahead conceptually past the bad parts to a future when we have, among other things, learned our lessons and given up our hubris. Those conceptual leaps ironically seek sustainable models in human prehistory, presumably something pre-ag or Stone Age so that we don’t merely retrace our steps. Considering how we binged through fossil fuels in about three centuries, energy stores that took hundreds of millions of years to pool and collect, I doubt there is any danger of arriving again at our current stage of industrial development or population. Nonetheless, the hope beyond hope is that something — anything — coalesces out of the smoldering remains of industrial civilization. However, some predictions for the near-term future suggest not just the collapse of capitalism and austerity for nearly all but an ecosystem in freefall and the resulting culmination (within as little as 40 years) of a mass extinction event — really more of a process — already underway. Large mammals typically don’t fare well under such circumstances. Humans, by the way, are large mammals. As I read scientific analyses and abstracts, we are faced not with the fraying and unraveling of one social or political paradigm eventually giving way to another (e.g., the collapse of Rome or the emergence of modernity out of feudalism) but a complete lights-out, all-bets-off, anarchic reset where whatever comes next probably takes millions of years, not a couple human generations. This is especially true if/when untended nuclear sites (nearly 450 of them) start popping off like Roman candles (as did Chernobyl and Fukushima) and irradiate the entire planet.

Which brings me (for no particular reason) to Christian eschatology. The basic doctrine is that we are now again in the End Times where Jesus (renamed St. Michael the Archangel) returns to do battle with Satan over earthly realms and to render the Last Judgment over believers and nonbelievers alike. Those within the fold are expected to rise up to heaven in the Rapture and all others will be left behind to suffer torments. From a nonbeliever’s perspective, this doesn’t differ so much from the Islamic belief in martyrdom where the reward for male martyrs’ sacrifice, specified by the Quran, is 72 virgin maidens in paradise. (Female martyrs can expect to find their husbands in paradise, which may sound like a cruel joke to Westerners.) Either way, the belief in a paradisaical eternity spent in the divine presence or among virgins cannot possibly unfold in linear time as we conceptualize and experience it because our embodied cognition is hopelessly, inescapably time-bound. Spiritual existence would not be bound up in time, so eternity may actually be closer to oblivion than a timeline.

Like other telescoping time frames, eschatology enables a view of the present where nothing much matters and rationalizes the worst insults and horrors we can inflict upon the natural world, on others, and even on ourselves. If authority, accountability, and fear of punishment erode to the point where one is presented with no reason not to choose evil and crime and amorality, because let’s be honest, without restraints one can get quite a lot done even if it requires being hideously awful toward everything and everyone, then why the hell not? The devil may care, but we no longer do. This degradation is already at work in the political sphere, which pundits assert has entered the post-truth era. Fact, honesty, and integrity no longer hold sway for a variety of obvious reasons, so candidates are freed to say and do anything to get and stay elected. It helps if they believe their own hype, of course, and there is no shortage of business gurus, self-help devotees, and lawyers fully able to convince themselves of things that fly in the face of reality and then sell them to a public paradoxically eager to both relinquish responsibility and stubbornly defy being led. We all participate on some level in this Orwellian doublethink because, well, time is short and little or nothing matters anymore. We’re beyond concern for our eternal souls (if they even exist) and now seek oblivion.

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